One of the principles of Christian growth is called the “put off and put on” principle (see Eph. 4:22–24). Behind the principle lies the fact that there are always sinful attitudes and actions we need to put off, and there are always positive traits of righteousness we need to put on more firmly.
Jesus uses this principle in Matthew 6, where the words “do not” or equivalent expressions occur ten times. With this expression, He is, of course, emphasizing the “put off.” But He doesn’t just leave us with the “do nots.” He also addresses the proper attitudes and actions to put on. The chapter begins with the word of warning: “Beware.” Anytime we see that word, we know there is danger ahead. And Jesus is telling us there is spiritual danger in the practices He warns against. In Matthew 6, these practices may be generally divided into two categories — the promotion of one’s own religious reputation (vv. 1–18) and the protection of one’s own financial future (vv. 19–34).
In the first category, Jesus warns against ostentatious giving, praying, and fasting. In effect, Jesus is warning against any spiritual practice that is done with the aim of gaining recognition from others. The specific practices Jesus warns against may seem outlandish to us. Today, no one would sound a trumpet when he gives or pray loudly on the street corner to attract attention or disfigure his face (possibly by putting ashes on it) when he is fasting.
In our day, we would be far more subtle in expressing our desire to be admired by others for our spirituality. But for most of us, the desire is still there. We may genuinely want to glorify God in all that we do. But deep down we also want to look good in the process. We crave recognition and the approval of others. But when we secretly seek to be admired by others, we are, in principle, no different than the hypocrites Jesus described. We are promoting our own religious reputation.
We’re not even to be admired by ourselves. Jesus expresses this in a figurative way by saying that in our giving we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. In other words, we are not to keep score in such a way as to feed our own pride. Rather, we should give with a spirit of thanksgiving that we are able to give rather than a spirit of pride over how much we give (see 1 Chron. 29:14–16). We should have the same attitude toward every area of our Christian lives. We cannot accomplish anything in either Christian growth or Christian ministry apart from the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us and His blessing on our efforts to make them effective.
But if we are to put off pride and self-promotion, what are we to put on? It is the desire to please God and promote His glory. Jesus actually says, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). But it is a truism that God rewards those who please Him. So, our aim should not be to gain a reward, for that also is self-serving. Rather, our aim should be to please God, who rewards us by His grace.
In the second section of Matthew chapter 6, Jesus continues to apply the “put off and put on” principle. Here, He warns us against a preoccupation with money or our future needs (the “put off” part). Instead, He urges us to store up treasure in heaven and trust our heavenly Father for our daily needs (the “put on” part).
We are to put off the tendency to store treasure on earth and instead are to put on storing treasure in heaven through our generous giving. Jesus does not condemn ordinary prudence. He does condemn the ambition to accumulate wealth for wealth’s sake. Today, for the vast majority of Americans, our problem is not undue accumulation of wealth but undue spending on things we do not need. According to studies of America’s giving patterns, most professing Christians give only about four percent of their incomes. We are not storing up treasure in heaven; we’re spending it on ourselves.
But what about the people who are neither accumulating wealth nor spending lavishly on themselves but instead are struggling just to make ends meet? Again, Jesus supplies the “put off and put on” principle. They are to put off anxious care and put on dependence on God’s care. If God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, shall He not much more clothe and feed His children? Therefore, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness and trust His promise to provide for our needs. This is easier said than done, but we actually have no other option if we are to avoid anxious care.
This attitude of seeking first God’s interests should even be reflected in our prayers, as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). So, let us seek to put off our preoccupation with our temporal needs and put on a preoccupation with God’s glory and God’s will. Then we will experience the heavenly reward Jesus promised.